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Why Russians are flocking to Mexican hotspots

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Canadian expat Kelly McLaughlin used to hear mainly English spoken by the sunseekers buying sunscreen, flip-flops and beer at the “tourist Wal-Mart” near her Cancun home.

Nowadays, the Toronto native hears other languages: Spanish, spoken with an Argentine accent, along with plenty of Portuguese, German and, increasingly, Russian.

The Russians are coming to Mexico in ever bigger numbers — and just in time to bolster a tourism industry dealing with an economic downturn and frightened Americans, who have been inundated with crime stories from south of the border.

News of bar attacks and beheadings — often in places far from the country’s tourist destinations, except Acapulco — doesn’t scare many non-U.S. visitors away from Mexico, especially Russians, says Cancun tour operator Armina Wolpert.

“They don’t fear, don’t listen to and don’t believe media outlets,” says Wolpert, whose agency, Arminas Travel, serves the Russian market. “In all of the seminars I’ve done . . . I’ve not received even one question about security in Mexico.”

Her business has been helped this year, she says, because of promotions in Russia by the Tourism Secretariat (Sectur) and difficulties in other places popular with Russian tourists, such as the Middle East and Asia, brought about by the Arab Spring and natural disasters.

The demand is so strong that Aeroflot started 13-hour flights between Moscow and Cancun in late October, adding to the existing service by Transaero, another Russian carrier. Some 27,000 Russians came to Mexico in 2010, up from just 1,600 in 2006, according to Sectur.

The trend has continued to grow: Sectur reports Russian visits increasing 59 per cent during the first 10 months of 2011.

As tourists, the Russians are coveted, known for spending big and going off the beaten path to visit remote beaches, swimming holes known as cenotes and roadside taco stands.

The average Russian stays up to 11 days and spends $1,000 daily — five times more than the average North American, who usually visits for no more than five nights — according to Cancun tourism officials.

“They really like shopping,” says Jesus Almaguer, president of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau. They buy “everything from jewellery to mariachi sombreros.”

Russians aren’t alone in ignoring the negative headlines and heading to the Yucatan Peninsula, where crime rates in some places are similar to Canada. Brazilian tourist trips have increased 59.4 per cent so far this year. Canadian visits have climbed 7.1 per cent.

The focus on emerging markets, such as Russia and Brazil, is no accident for Mexico, where President Felipe Calderon declared 2011, “The Year of Tourism,” a reflection of the sector’s economic importance — nearly 9 per cent of GDP. The industry is only just fully recovering from the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. Mexican officials changed visa rules in 2010 to help tourism, allowing anyone with a U.S. visa to forgo getting prior permission to enter Mexico.

Officials such as Almaguer acknowledge there’s no breaking completely with the dependence on the U.S. market. But, he says, “we realize that we have to look for different options.”

David Agren is a freelance writer

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